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American Beauty

I’ve gone on record stating that I’m not happy with the Oscars this year. Though I’m glad to see so many women and people of color represented in the major categories, it still feels like so little has changed. Mank and Trial of the Chicago 7 — two overwhelmingly white and uneven films that might have been spat out by a Netflix algorithm designed to generate Oscar-bait films — still walked away with most of the nominations. How can we say that the Oscars have made any tangible improvements when the Academy voters keep falling for the same shit? Then again, in such a fucked-up year as 2020, it would be fair to say that the typical rules don’t apply and “Best Picture” doesn’t mean what it did in previous years.

As such, this seems like an opportune time to look at a bit of Oscar fool’s gold. We turn our attention to 1999, a prime year for ’90s nostalgia in cinema. This was the year of The Matrix, Office Space, The Sixth Sense, Austin Powers, Toy Story 2, The Iron Giant, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, Galaxy Quest, the Stephen Sommers remake of The Mummy, all still fondly remembered and frequently referenced over two decades later. Hell, even The Phantom Menace and Wild Wild West are still widely remembered and discussed after all these years.

Quite notably, 1999 was also a year of teen dramas with a heavily sexual charge. American Pie is of course the most famous example, but we also got the likes of Varsity Blues, Cruel Intentions, and 10 Things I Hate About You. At the same time, it was a year of such atmospheric and contemplative psychological dramas as Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, and Girl, Interrupted. And at the intersection of these two trends is American Beauty, the ’99 film that won top honors at the Oscars.

Here we have a Best Picture winner that nobody seems to remember or talk about anymore. Of course, I’m sure it doesn’t help that the film is about a middle-aged white man going through a mid-life crisis — that kind of content fell out of favor right about the time when Dubya/Cheney and bin Laden gave us so many bigger problems to worry about.

Even worse, said middle-aged white man was played by Kevin Spacey — in an Oscar-winning role! — whose catastrophic fall from grace in 2017 has been well-documented. Luckily for him, Spacey has a long history of villainous roles that didn’t age poorly in light of these revelations. I’m sorry, maybe it’s just me, but I honestly think the knowledge that I’m watching a real-life alleged sexual predator adds a new layer to movies like Seven or The Usual Suspects.

But here, we’re watching Kevin freaking Spacey coping with his marital difficulties by perving on a high school cheerleader, and he’s supposed to be our sympathetic protagonist. Yikes.

Of course, Kevin Spacey wasn’t the only talent involved in this. The film was written by Alan Ball, under the direction of Sam Mendes. Both of them made their feature debuts with this movie, and they both won Oscars. On their first freaking try.

Ball would later go on to a respectable career in TV. Specifically, he was the creator of “Six Feet Under” (another death-centric story about a dysfunctional family), and “True Blood” (another story notable for its violence and sexual charge). As for Mendes, he’s of course developed a varied and impressive filmography as a solid journeyman filmmaker.

(Side note: It still amuses me that Sam Mendes’ Spectre set the record for the largest onscreen practical explosion in cinema history. That record didn’t go to the likes of Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich, but freaking Sam Mendes.)

Getting to the movie itself, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there’s a lot more going on here than just a midlife crisis. Indeed, the crisis itself is rooted in middle-class suburban ennui, as Lester Burnham (Spacey) lives in a boring white house and works in a boring cubicle at a boring 9-5 job for corporate shitheads who don’t care about him. He’s living in a soulless capitalist nightmare where every day is the same, nobody wants him around, and he has to literally beg just to keep his dead-end job.

I might add that his family hates Lester, as his wife (Carolyn, played by Annette Bening) is a shrill perfectionist harpy and his daughter (Jane, played by Thora Birch) is a sullen withdrawn teenager. Yet even these two characters are products and victims of the same overbearing culture that’s bringing Lester down. This entire family is actively oppressed by a culture that values material wealth, conventional beauty, and the constant desire to succeed at all costs. An inherently treacherous culture that teaches us to speak politely and smile nice and wide, even as we slip the knife into someone else’s back on the way up the ladder.

Lester responds to all this by getting his spirit crushed and his very being worn down. Carolyn responds with a constant 24/7 struggle to attain the perfect home, the perfect job, the perfect family, the perfect everything, no matter what she has to do or who she has to take her passive-aggressive stress out on. And Jane responds by doing her best to opt out of all the bullshit, even as she privately copes with anxiety over her body image and developing sexuality.

The visuals only add to the oppressive atmosphere, as the camera is kept rigidly still and the sets are aggressively spotless. In some scenes, the sets are almost made to look cavernous, like Lester is literally being swallowed up by his surroundings. Every color is muted, except for the deep red of Carolyn’s prize roses, which helps to establish them as a prominent visual motif. And of course, when something dreamlike or unexpected arises (namely the iconic and deeply troubling fantasy sequences), the camerawork and editing are erratic in a way that calls attention to the break in routine.

The filmmaking craft on display holds up superbly, and lot of these themes still play remarkably well in the 21st century. Alas, that’s only where the movie starts. Where it ends up is something else entirely. Because roughly fifteen minutes into the picture, along comes Mena Suvari in the role of Angela Hayes. Seriously, even the character’s name — Angela — implies that she’s some angelic and perfect being, come down from her pedestal to be Lester’s salvation.

See, the film never thinks to suggest that Lester is unhappy because he’s been reduced to fodder for a cruel and amoral system. No, it seems that Lester’s hangups are due solely to his sexual frustration as part of a loveless marriage. And the solution is introducing him to a teenage girl that he falls instantly in obsessive lust with. By rediscovering his sexual interest, he reverts to his adolescence, acting and babbling like a lovesick preteen.

Yes, Lester does take other measures as the plot unfolds, such as working out, quitting his job, smoking pot, trading in his Camry for the sports car of his dreams, etc. But pretty much all of these solutions stem from living out his adolescent fantasies and reverting back to his childhood in a way that he never could without the home and money and support structure he now has. In at least one instance — when Lester applies for a fast food job because that was his first job — he is literally and explicitly trying to go back to his younger days.

If the filmmakers had stuck with the socioeconomic angle, they might have made something that could stand the test of time. But no, the film sticks tightly to the personal angle, because everything Lester does is with the ultimate goal of making himself sexually desirable for a girl who’s maybe a third his age. It’s disturbing and gross to watch. And with the knowledge that this particular man is being played by an alleged sex offender — over a decade after his alleged indiscretions with Anthony Rapp — I feel disgusted with myself just for watching it.

Granted, Jane is clear in calling out her father’s behavior, even calling him too pathetic to live. (Harsh, maybe, but it’s hard to say she’s wrong.) Perhaps more importantly, Angela herself is perfectly aware that she’s been turning heads since she was 12, and she’s been looking for ways to capitalize on that for just as long. Though in fact, she’s probably just playing the part of the sexual idol because that’s what everyone else expects her to be. The film makes a very clear point of showing who Angela really is without the mask or the male fantasy: a fallible and flawed girl with her own vices and insecurities, just like any teenager. Thus we have another angle on the running theme of “characters who are gravely damaged by the expectations and pressures of modern American society.”

Trouble is, it’s blatantly obvious that this whole angle was written and directed by men, and that self-defeating lack of authenticity definitely comes through in the dialogue and performances. Even worse, the further along we get into the plot, the more Angela doubles down on acting like an inconsiderate jerk who’ll fuck any man she wants, especially if it’ll get her what she wants. I don’t know what’s more concerning, the possibility that the filmmakers had absolutely no idea what they were doing with Angela, or the possibility that they did.

Then we have Ricky, played by Wes Bentley. He’s a social misfit with no regard for privacy, to the point where he videotapes people — even through their windows! — without their knowledge. I suspect that the character was intended to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, and the implication upsets me.

Ricky is a young man in a film that idolizes youth to an unhealthy degree. He’s a free spirit who doesn’t care about the demands of modern society, surrounded by characters who are crushed by those demands. He’s independently wealthy (by way of numerous criminal side hustles), so he smokes weed and acts weird and speaks with unflinching candor because he doesn’t have to conform. He lurks in the background and watches all the other characters, acting as the moral arbiter of the story. Lester and Jane both look to Ricky, hoping that he might lead them out of their suburban drudgery to rediscover the true beauty that lies beneath the homogenous, insincere facade of society.

In short, Ricky is the film’s ideal. And given the character’s aforementioned moral shortcomings, that’s highly disturbing. Also, there’s a subplot in which one character suspects Lester — who, again, is Kevin goddamn Spacey — of engaging in sexual acts with Ricky, a high schooler. To repeat, fucking YIKES.

Elsewhere in the supporting cast, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Allison Janney and Chris Cooper in the role of Ricky’s parents, a conservative couple living next door to the Burnhams. Scott Bakula and Sam Robards also appear as a gay couple in the neighborhood, which might have been nicely progressive for the time if the film had made better use of them. Alas, they only exist to set up Ricky’s dad and his rampant homophobia, which pays off at the climax.

And the payoff might just be the worst dated plot point in the whole movie. That’s not something I say lightly, but it’s like a perfect storm of every factor in this movie that’s utterly repulsive with twenty years of hindsight.

American Beauty is overripe. Even the good parts about the movie have been done better by other contemporary and less dated films. It’s not as deeply personal or psychological or profound as Magnolia, it’s not as transgressive or sexy as Cruel Intentions… hell, freaking Fight Club was a more incisive and innovative satire about the soul-crushing evils of capitalism and toxic male fantasy trips. And all three of those movies showed greater self-awareness about their own fucked-up moralities.

When the film is at its best, it’s like the lowest common denominator of all three movies, watered down to a level that Oscar voters could deal with. And when the film is at its worst, I’m at a loss for how the film’s treatment of pedophilia, voyeurism, and homophobia could’ve been considered acceptable in 1999, much less today. Sure, the subsequent revelations about Kevin Spacey hurt the movie further, but that’s like a kick to the gut after you’ve already been declared brain-dead.

Sure, the movie is absolutely gorgeous in its camerawork and editing, and the performances are impressive across the board, but that’s not enough. This is one Best Picture winner that certainly does not represent the best of its year in cinema.

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